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Linguistic Duality as a Leadership Competency
Ottawa, April 5, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Thank you, Mr. Ferrabee.
Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.
I would like to thank Mr. Guy Mc Kenzie for the invitation to come and speak to you today. It is a pleasure to be here as the first speaker in your two-day orientation session. This afternoon, I will discuss how the skills that you need in order to excel as public service leaders are tied to your official languages skills.
I’d like to start by offering you congratulations. The Public Policy Forum recently published its Ten Tough Jobs 2010 study—looking at the most demanding positions in the public service. They were all assistant deputy minister jobs. I would venture that those are tougher now than they have ever been: the public is simultaneously more demanding and more critical; parliamentarians are more sceptical, even adversarial; interest groups are more aggressive; policy issues are more complex; accountability is more demanding.
Under the circumstances, I would not be surprised if you felt that the last person you wanted to hear from was the Commissioner of Official Languages. As Morris Rosenberg, currently deputy minister of foreign affairs, once said, there are watchers and there are doers—and I am one of the watchers.
But I am pleased to be able to speak to you, because I believe that you play a critical role in establishing whether the Official Languages Act is a success or a failure. And I think that your attitude toward language—in particular, how you respect language of work as a value rather than an obligation—can determine whether you are a successful leader. For it is my contention that mastery of both of Canada’s official languages—and effective use and encouragement of the use of both—are crucial leadership competencies.
In the public service, the linguistic minority can shift many times over—especially here in the National Capital Region. It is not determined by provincial borders: it is determined more often than not by who is in charge. Just imagine—or remember, if you have already lived through this situation—how you can feel the winds of linguistic change when a Francophone minister replaces an Anglophone one. All of a sudden, translation becomes a priority, and bilingual employees become popular. The same thing happens on a smaller scale when Anglophone managers are assigned to Francophone divisions.
During your career, you will have found yourself in situations where you spoke the language of the minority or majority, whether you are Anglophone or Francophone. The public service is its own world of linguistic divides. French is not always the minority language, and English is not always the majority language. The only constant is your own official language of choice.
We have just published a study on leadership and language of work, and I will discuss it in some detail later—but first let me make something clear. This topic is not new. And this is not “Pierre Trudeau’s dream.”
In 1958, Canada’s Civil Service Commission recommended that a new provision be inserted in the Civil Service Act, requiring that a public servant in charge of a unit composed of a significant number of both Francophone and Anglophone employees be sufficiently bilingual to supervise the unit’s work. That was 53 years ago.
In 1966, Prime Minister Pearson stood up in the House of Commons and laid out the policy. He said that “[t]he government hopes and expects that, within a reasonable period of years,” the federal public service would achieve a position in which (and I quote):
- it will be normal practice for oral or written communications within the service to be made in either official language at the option of the person making them, in the knowledge that they will be understood by those directly concerned;
- communications with the public will normally be made in either official language having regard to the person being served;
- the linguistic and cultural values of both English speaking and French speaking Canadians will be reflected through civil service recruitment and training; and
- a climate will be created in which public servants from both language groups will work together toward common goals, using their own language and applying their respective cultural values, but each fully appreciating and understanding those of the other.”
That was 45 years ago—and three years before the Official Languages Act was passed.
It has been 42 years since the Official Languages Act was enacted, 29 years since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was signed, 23 years since rights regarding language of work were included in the Official Languages Act—and 5 years since federal institutions became obliged to promote the use of French and English and to take positive measures to enhance the vitality and development of official language minority communities.
And yet, the federal government has not yet achieved Lester Pearson’s objective: a climate where public servants from both official language groups work together using their own language and their understanding of the other language.
Report after report, study after study, indicate that Francophones are reluctant to use French at work. There are pressures against the use of French: of all the things that determine the working day of the employee, language is one of the few he or she can choose. This is a radical act. It’s not surprising people are reluctant.
What is the result? A loss of effectiveness; a diminishing of employees’ linguistic capacity, whether Anglophone or Francophone. Not to mention a failure to respect the Act and the values it represents. In June 2007, I heard Jeffrey Gandz of the Ivey Executive Program and Ivey Leadership Program talk about leadership and the importance of knowing how to influence and persuade—in other words, encouraging, empowering and exhibiting values. “If leaders don’t exhibit values, the values don’t exist,” he said.
I asked Mr. Gandz how important it was for leaders to be able to communicate to the organization as a whole, as opposed to just their direct reports. That, he said, was the distinction between a leader and a manager. You manage within a system; you lead across systems. So to be a leader in the public service, you must know how to influence, persuade, engage and empower all of your employees, in English and in French.
A key role you will play is to personify values: the values of your department and of the public service. We need to return linguistic duality to the category of values.
You and your managers play a key role in making the public service a place of work where linguistic duality is a fundamental value at the heart of its operations. You all have to be defenders of official languages, guided by the values of linguistic duality and respect. Not only must you have good language skills in both official languages, but you must also be willing to use and equally accept both languages at work and demonstrate behaviour that shows your commitment to linguistic duality in the public service.
The focus on leadership by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is not new. It is an ongoing theme in the continuing review of linguistic duality in the government of Canada.
In fact, I argue that strong leadership is the key determinant of success, and its absence the key determinant of failure. Leadership in a federal institution that respects both official languages means much more than reading a speech in French or conducting a bilingual meeting or sending messages in both official languages.
Shortly after I became Commissioner of Official Languages, I had a meeting with senior executives over at second-language evaluations. I brought up an issue that had interested me for some time. For years, I had heard complaints about how difficult it is to attain a C in oral interaction, and so I asked what was required.
To get a C in oral interaction, I was told, the candidate should be able to explain something in detail, should be able to persuade and should be able to give advice to a junior colleague.
I thought about this, and I realized something. These are not just language criteria. These are leadership criteria.
Our study Beyond Bilingual Meetings: Leadership Behaviours for Managers, published in March, aims to inspire senior officials and managers to set the standard in terms of official languages in their organizations. The study, which is available on our website, includes the Leadership Competencies Profile for Official Languages, which uses the same key competencies as the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat’s more general leadership competency profile that you have come to know throughout your career: values and ethics, strategic thinking, engagement, and management excellence. For each value, we identified a series of intermediate competencies, as well as behaviours that flow from these competencies. Let me give you some behavioural examples you can follow to encourage linguistic duality at work.
You can start by finding out which official language your managers and employees prefer to use at work by asking them, instead of assuming. Then you can speak to them in the language of their choice. This is a matter of respect, and it takes just two seconds. You could also develop best practices in cooperation with various working groups and specify expectations with respect to language of work. It is important that your leadership in linguistic duality shows, and you need tools in place to implement it.
Demonstrating courage in taking corrective action to ensure that employees’ rights are respected is a particularly vital competency. Showing boldness, creativity and initiative in taking action to ensure that official languages are respected at work, and being honest and transparent with managers and employees when they do not respect the Official Languages Act in terms of language at work, will gain you the respect of your subordinates.
And in the near future, you will also find on our website a self-assessment tool for managers that you or your subordinates can use to evaluate existing leadership behaviours promoting official languages at work, as well as those that your organization needs to introduce.
Knowledge of official languages is a critical leadership competency. The federal public service, Canada’s largest employer, recognizes that—in theory. How does knowledge of both official languages affect your ability to be a senior official? Well, if you are in the National Capital Region, your managers and employees have the right to communicate with you, report to you and send you requested documents in English or in French. You are obligated to respect that right—it’s the law. But as a senior official, shouldn’t you be entitled to expect others to comply with your official language of choice? That is the current unwritten behaviour, but it has to change—you have to give your subordinates the possibility of working in the official language of their choice.
To do that, you have to show leadership by managing expectations and resources. If translation is needed, you have to allow sufficient time for that task. Here’s an example: an Anglophone supervisor asks her bilingual Francophone employee to write a report. He chooses to write it in English. In doing so, he does not write a sufficiently convincing piece, and the proposal is rejected. It’s too bad—it would have been much easier for him to explain the intricate details in French, but time was short. The result was failure to be clear and understood.
But whose failure was it? Failure of the employee, who didn’t insist on writing in his first language—or failure of the supervisor, who didn’t support her subordinate’s working in the language of his choice? This type of lack of leadership in official languages becomes the failure of the public service and, ultimately, of the whole government, which claims to respect both official languages.
Showing leadership in official languages is not only respecting the idea of it, and it’s not just ticking boxes on a to-do list. You have to make it happen, and you have to make it real, to manage expectations. To make working in the language of choice a real choice, you have to respect the linguistic preference of managers and employees, use both official languages yourself, and not just say it—show it.
In doing so, you have to respect the time it takes to implement. Otherwise, it’s just empty talk. It’s not real, and it’s not fair. And it’s never best practice to value expediency over justice.
Respect means not only respecting the official language itself and the people who speak it—it also means respecting the choice of the public servant, and respecting the process, time and energy it takes for that choice to have a chance.
So a conversation might take longer to unfold. So you might spend more precious minutes in explaining yourself, in listening to someone. So what? What you will gain in respect will be valuable. Take the risk. Set an example by stepping out of your linguistic comfort zone. Give credit to those who have the courage to speak in their second language, and praise those who choose to work in the language of their choice. Make it easy for them—and for you along the way. Make the public service we see described on paper and on-line a reality.
Leadership is key. The success of language policy in your department will depend on your behaviour, your actions, and the messages you send. Will you encourage and initiate change in the right direction, or will you tolerate inadequacy? Do not wait to be called to attention by your managers or employees when it comes to official languages at work. Be proactive: it’s a question of respect. And good leaders are always respectful.
Thank you. If we still have time, I’d like to answer any questions you may have, or hear about your own experiences with linguistic duality.